Marianne Moore (1935) / Photograph by George Platt Lynes
Marianne Moore is always hiding in plain sight. She is the paradoxical radical, either distracting the reader from her traditionalism with avant-garde trappings or concealing rebellion in prim camouflage. She picketed for womens rights and voted for Herbert Hoover. She distrusted the obscenities in William Carlos Williams and encouraged the ability in Allen Ginsberg. She breathed horror of a sodomite to one lesbian friend and signed letters to another your affectionate albino-dactyl. Those three-corned hats and mens polo shirts: do they reflect an old-fashioned aversion to frippery or an innovative preference for androgyny? And her resolute urban celibacy (she lived in an apartment with her mother): a species of piety or a refusal of stereotypes? Moores mix of puritan and progressive seems quintessentially Americanalert to the virtues of brown bread and the glories of Brancusis sculpture, to Pilgrims Progress as well as Ezra Pound. Likewise her get-to-the-point distrust of dreaming: No wonder we hate poetry, she writes in Armors Undermining Modesty, and stars and harps and the new moon. When Moore ends that poem on an imperishable wish, she means something as solid as the hard yron of another of her titles. Moore was indirectly forthright, demure and definitive at once.
Such outspoken concealment marks her publishing history as well as her poemsa fact which renders these two new volumes essential for any consideration of Moores work, American poetry, or twentieth-century verse. Previously, taking in Moores late writing meant making do with the 1967 Penguin paperback of her Complete Poems, a book that comes with a caution from M. M., in epigraph, that Omissions are not accidents. Indeed Moore culled much from this mistitled collection, not only leaving out whole poemssome of them undeniably major, like Black Earth, Pigeons, Walking-Sticks and Paperweights and Watermarksbut also presenting many in far-from-original form. (Poetry, which went from five stanzas to three lines, is the most extreme example.) Such re-packaging may be a poets prerogative, but it belies completeness by obscuring the size and progress of Moores career. A 2003 volume, The Poems of Marianne Moore, tried to rectify the obscurity, presenting an expanded corpus in chronological order so as to enable us to watch her grow, in the words of the books editor. But particular decisions worked against that goal, since a poems later revision often appears in its earlier chronological spot: the 1941 version of Walking-Sticks, for example, is presented as if it were published in 1936, and the vast differences are nowhere to be found in secondary apparatus. Twenty-first century readers still didnt have the texts necessary to understand Moores work from the 1930s.
Now we do. In A-Quiver with Significance and Adversity & Grace, Heather White presents in full the two books that Moore published during the years 19321941, The Pangolin and Other Verse and What Are Years. White then reproduces each poem in its first, magazine version. Facsimiles and notes offer the right mix of untrammeled reading and valuable contextualization, letting readers experience each instance of a poem directly while also drawing attention to differences. Limpid introductions provide the necessary biographical and historical background: Moores wrangles with publishers, attempts at fiction, reaction to the rise of fascism. The result not only allows us to read, for the first time, adequate texts of such masterpieces as The Pangolin, The Jerboa, and The Frigate Pelican, it also allows us to understand their significance. We can pinpoint the crucial bits of Walking-Sticks by tracing the poems changes from journal to book. We can take in the provocative George Plank drawing (one black and one white hand, divided by a flag) that once accompanied Virginia Britanniawith Moores approval. We can note how The Student first appeared between The Steeple-Jack and The Hero under the intriguing title Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play. There is some duplication between the two volumessince the tables of contents in The Pangolin and What are Years overlapbut both books are necessary. With Robin Schulzes invaluable editing in Becoming Marianne Moore, which traces the textual history of Moores early poems, Whites work provides a big step forward in our quest for an accurate and complete record of a great poet.
That record brings us back to Moores paradoxical progressivism, since these 1930s poems reveal an ambitiona provocationthat is easy to overlook in her detailed delicacy. Moores syllabic, footnoted lines ally with twentieth-century artistic developmentsvers libre, collageand take inspiration from lesser-known members of the animal kingdom. When Moore admires the not un- / chainlike, machine- / like form and / frictionless creep of The Pangolin, for example, a creature made graceful by adversities, con- / versities, she tutors her readers in appreciation of her own art.
But the stakes for Moore were never just innovation or grace. Take Virginia Britannia from A-Quiver with Significance. Moore describes the first English settlement in North America with finicky detail, quoting archival sources and arcane natural-history records, then uses this information to judge a botanical habit with political implications: in taking what they / pleasedcolonizing as we say our forebears were not all intel- / lect and delicacy. Exactly quantified lines and stanzas, a pattern of syllables almost impossible to hear and difficult to notice, reach exclamations like this one: Rare unscent- / ed, provident- / ly hot, too sweet, inconsistent flowerbed! Painstaking form, here, means definitive sentiment. Poetry rises to the passion of its disapproval through the scruples of its structure.
Whites two books clarify the course of such passion over the course of a career. Common narratives of Moores development pit early, aesthetic experimentation against late, moralistic conservatism, with the 30s as a dividing line. On the one hand lies the sensibility of Picking and Choosing, published in 1920, where Moore allows that it is permissible that the / critic should know what he likes; on the other hand, the stridency of In Distrust of Merits, collected in 1943, where Moore would fight till I have conquered in myself what / causes war. But A-Quiver with Significance and Adversity and Grace complicate any easy contrast. Moores artistic precisionthat discrimination of choosingalways implied an ethical visionthe search for a viable standard of merit. Creative effort, to her, was never more or less than moral action. What changed in the 30s was an increasing emphasis on the public consequences of that action: the first-person plural of The Student, for example, would teach a whole country how to improve ones mind. If Moore in this decade strengthened her right-leaning voting record, she also deepened her convictions as a small-r republican. Good citizens both fostered and needed good government.
One result of this development, revealed in these new books, is Moores fascinating interest in the early history of her country, whose colonists strove to embody republican values on an alien continent. If we read The Steeple-jack as a discrete title, opening the Complete Poems, it could seem to be quaint description, praise for a whaling village of lobsters and fishnets and sweet sea air. Now read the same in its original presentation, where its followed by The Student and The Herothe former rousing a nation of undergraduates and the latter ending at the grave of George Washingtonand The Steeple-jack reveals its subtle political advocacy. We notice afresh the poems concern for presidents who have repaid / sin-driven // senators by not thinking about them. Over the course of a decade, Moore changed the school of her much-revised Student from a tree of knowledge / tree of life into a tree of knowledge / and of libertyfreedom assuming its central place in the nationalism-cum-religion of her educational Eden. Pupils there might learn the motto of her exemplary pelican, Festina lente, which Moore revealingly mistranslates as Be gay / civilly. Its a recipe for living well, in Moores worldview, combining her trademark belief in both gusto and humility. But it blends personal conscience with political consciousness.
An accurate account of Moores poetry in the 30s, therefore, contributes to a larger narrative of American modernism in the era, as it moves from a phase of high-art experimentation into a phase of social concern. Moores work proves how relevance could depend onrather than supersedethe creative habits of that earlier era. Her copious, confusing details are a case in point. As White notes in one of her introductions, Moores revisions sometimes aimed at greater lucidity by diminishing the specificity of her references. But it is just those details that sharpen her critical point. When Virginia Britannia, for example, loses its citation of the strangler fig, the dwarf- / fancying Egyptian, the American, / the Dutch, the noble / Roman, the result weakens Moores distrust of North American colonization. So does the excised reference to a black savage subjected, along with the redskin, to the kind tyranny of European settlement. Proper names are not secondary, in Moores meditation on Indian- / named Virginian / streams, in counties named for English lords. The particulars of labeling reveal the hypocrisies of a new republic, with its tactless symbol proclaiming dont tread on me.
Moores record of facts serves as an antidote to such weighty breaches of tact, such far-reaching bad manners, when she counters the indiscrimination of greed with the meticulousness of notice. Her brand of heroism is exhausting, as she writes in He Digesteth Hard Yron, because it bespeak[s] relentlessness, as she emphasizes in Spensers Ireland (another sly invocation of colonial conditions). Yet such heroism remains Moores steady preoccupation during these years, from the infinitely complicated starkness of The Monkey Puzzle to the care, not madness of Ireland. When she writes of her exemplary pangolin, then, that to explain grace requires a curious hand, her adjective seems an apt choice for the strange and inquisitive habits that she demandedof herself, of her readers, of her fellow citizens. The challenge is freshly posed with these two volumes. Exquisite and exciting, they reward the curiosity that Moores work exhibits and requires.
Siobhan Phillipss poems and essays have appeared in various journals. She is author of The Poetics of the Everyday.